Life between the ivory tower and a cardboard box

Posts tagged “Anthropology

I am a Third Culture Kid: Being “The Foreigner”

I love being the foreigner. There is something very exciting about being outside of your comfort zone and being forced into a position where all you can do is learn and adapt. There is also something very reassuring and even liberating about knowing that you can be exempt from the rules, that your social faux pas or bumbling awkwardness in new situations are excused, because you are the foreigner. Anyone who has ever been a tourist or visitor may understand how this feels.

Having lived in different places, TCKs are used to being the foreigner. Living in a new town or country means having to learn and adopt an entirely new set of social and cultural norms, often much deeper and more nuanced than the more immediate and superficial needs of tourists and visitors. More mobile TCKs undergo this process more frequently, many times developing high adaptability skills, while other times developing a resistance to adapting. Either way, a constant state of foreign-ness contributes to the TCK’s cultural identity. Some of my friends and I have talked about how our love for travel and move to other countries is in part related to our desire to, once again, be the foreigner.

Ticket Office for ForeignerHowever, in this particular area, I think that the biggest challenge for TCKs is figuring out when they are the “foreigner” and when they are the “native”. How does one gauge whether he/she has learned enough of the local culture or lived long enough in one place to say that he/she feels like an insider? Is it even OK for a “foreigner” to say they are “native” to a place, even if they were not born or grew up there, or possess the corresponding passport? This all goes back to the root question, “Where are you from?” Because there are so many assumptions that come with one’s ethnic or national background, it becomes hard for a TCK to answer how one feels about any place he or she has lived in.

The tension between being the foreigner and being the native is just as pronounced whether someone is in “at home” or “away”. As a repatriated TCK, I can safely say that I sometimes struggle with figuring out how I feel in my passport country. I have lived here a total of 11 years (and then some), albeit non-consecutively. Most of my family is here, some of my friends are still here, I speak Tagalog well enough to get by, and I care about what happens here. I don’t have any problem with saying I feel at home here.

I recognize that my experience growing up here is not a “typical” experience shared by the majority of Filipinos. I attended an international school for seven years. My teachers were expats, and my friends included Tagalog-speaking Australians and non Tagalog-speaking Filipinos. We spoke a different form of English that was somewhere between American and Filipino, with a smattering of swear words from every language imaginable. Instead of reading Florante at Laura and Noli Me Tangere, I read The House of the Spirits and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Instead of taking Filipino, I took French. Instead of going to college at the age of 16 or 17, I graduated high school at 18, after taking two years of IB. While the school was in the Philippines, it existed within its own, very atypical bubble. Even my friends who had grown up attending only that skill and never left the Philippines felt very different from their university classmates. How different is their experience from a TCK who grew up someplace where they were foreigners by citizenship? Since the school was in the Philippines, could we still be natives?

There have been quite a few people who tried to question whether I am truly Filipino or not. I have had Americans ask me why I don’t speak English with my “real accent”, and I have had Filipinos tell me that I must not really be Filipino because of my opinions. One of my most memorable incidents happened in college, after about three years of living in the U.S. One of my jobs was to call alumni to update our campus records and ask for donations. The wife of one of my assigned contacts picked up the phone and struck up a brief conversation with me before handing the phone to her husband (the actual alum).

“So, Erin, where are you from?” she asked.

“Oh, I am from the Philippines,” was my brief answer.

“Oh, really? Where in the Philippines?”

“Oh, my family lives in [city name]. It’s a part of the Greater Manila area, which is the capital.”

” . . . I see. Hold on while I get my husband.”

Thinking she had the phone muffled, she went ahead and called for her husband.

“She says she’s calling from [college name]. And she says she’s from the Philippines, but she doesn’t have an accent. I don’t think she’s really from the Philippines.”

I was very irritated to hear her say that, though I can kind of understand her doubt. As I have said before, the question “Where are you from?” raises expectations and assumptions about your behavior. Since I told her that I was an international student, a foreigner, living in the United States, she expected me to sound foreign, with “an accent”. When the sound of my voice shattered her expectations, thereby making myself unfit for any of the categories in her head, she instead resorted to doubt. Apparently, people seem to think you can only be completely foreign or completely native, leaving no room for fitting anywhere in between.

Ways To Relate

David Pollock and Ruth van Reken, who wrote the book Third Culture Kids, created this chart to illustrate different ways to relate to one’s host culture (credit to Mr. Atkins for the chart). Each framework is characterized by the individual’s mental and physical similarity to the host culture. As we can see, increasing adjustment difficulty increases as there becomes more dissonance between the two characteristics and that of the host culture, particularly with thinking. Perhaps this may explain why my American accent juxtaposed with my Filipino heritage appears to confuse the American on the phone, or why my inability to get outraged about a couple of TV shows brings Filipinos to question the degree with which I belong to my heritage.

In one of my Anthropology seminars in college, we read an article called, When Anthropology is Home: The Different Contexts of a Single Discipline, by Mariza Peirano. In her article, Peirano discusses the recontextualizing of how we look at people by blurring the lines between traditional dichotomies, such as home vs. abroad, insider vs. outsider, and native vs. foreigner. By doing so, we avoid using a framework of Other-ness, or seeing people as fitting neatly into either native or foreigner categories. Furthermore, she argues that each person must assume multiple roles or identities — both insider and outsider, both native and foreigner — to garner as close a representation of a place as possible, for “‘others’ are both ourselves and those relatively different from us, whom we see as part of the same collectivity.” Basically, to have a better understanding of a place, you must study it from all perspectives.

I completely agree. I have been around and heard from too many people who have preconceived notions or stereotypes about a place they have never been to or only experienced briefly. I have also had enough of people who have hyper-inflated opinions about where they live and do not have experience with seeing it from an outsider’s point of view. It is because of people like this that there continue to be rigid notions of who is a native and who is a foreigner (“either you are with us or against us”). Because TCKs have lived in different places, often away from and moving between “hometowns” or passport countries, they have experienced being the foreigner and the native. As a result, while there is tension and personal difficulties with adjustment and fitting in, there is also the potential for a unique and expanded worldview that may offer unconventional insights into many different issues.

I hope this will encourage TCKs to speak out and be involved in activities or organizations that can make a difference. Your experience and personal insight may be what is needed to help create change.

(to be continued)

Read I am a Third Culture Kid: Introduction

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New York Times: “Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones”

NY TimesThe latest New York Times features an article titled Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones. It describes a new program called Human Terrain Team, which assigns anthropologists and other social scientists to U.S. combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan. Team members use their expertise to study local populations and assist U.S. troops in creating solutions that will benefit both the local communities and U.S. operations. Supporters of the program say that this strategy has produced concrete results and has helped the U.S. Army in assisting and understanding local communities.

On the other hand, there is a body of opposition, fronted by anthropology professionals, who are concerned that anthropology will be used to exploit and harm the target populations and to serve the interests of the military and intelligence agencies. One anthropology professor went so far as to say that participants the program “will end up harming the entire discipline in the long run.”

I did some further research and it turns out that there has been a longstanding debate on the line between ethnographic study and counter-insurgency that goes back to World War I. A history of this debate and its consequences on anthropology and the American Anthropological Association written by David Price, a professor at St. Martin’s College in Washington State, U.S.A. and a leading critic of anthropology’s role in intelligence, can be read here. More information and debate can be found on anthropology blogs such as Antropologi.info and Savageminds.org. This has led to a petition created by an ad hoc group, the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, towards the development and promotion of an ethical anthropology.

It’s a very interesting debate, and it appears that it speaks a lot about anthropology’s ongoing identity crisis. I don’t really know enough about it to take a position yet, but I think this is definitely an indication of how relevant anthropology is, has been, and will continue to be in current affairs.


I am a Third Culture Kid: Introduction

TCK Book CoverI am a Third Culture Kid.

A third culture kid (TCK) has been defined as:

“A person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership of any. Although elements from each culture are assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of a similar background.” (Pollock)

What does this mean? It means that my years growing up and living in South Korea, the Philippines, Grenada, and then the United States affected me, my cultural identity, and worldview in ways that make me different from a person who has lived in the same town, city, or country. Not better or superior; just different.

TCKs inhabit a cross-cultural and highly mobile environment. As a result, they are described as culturally sensitive, multilingual, possess high adaptability, and have truly multi-cultural perspectives and thought processes. Many writers and scholars have said that TCKs are the model citizens of the future global society, as they are products of a postmodern world where political borders and cultural differences cease to matter. As a TCK, I believe that being able to understand diverse perspectives can certainly benefit the world and can change how people view things like race, culture, nationalism, heritage, and the general idea of difference. I think that being a TCK is what interested me in majoring in Anthropology. While it all sounds very romantic, TCKs also face some key issues that tend to further confuse their own sense of identity.

One of the biggest (if not the most important) issues TCKs face personally is grappling with the idea of where “home” is. This is especially pronounced when faced with the question, “Where are you from?” I feel that TCKs are particularly sensitive to the implications of the question “Where are you from?”, which exacerbates the anguish of finding an appropriate answer. The question “Where are you from?” is loaded with expectations that wherever you lay your head at the end of the day dictates who you are, what your family is like, what religion you practice, what food you like to eat, and even what color your skin should be. This leads to the deeper assumption that where one lives or where one is a citizen must automatically be one’s “culture”, leading to a lot of stereotyping. Because TCKs grow up with diverse experiences and tend to be highly mobile, where one lays his/her head at the end of the day tends to change and can often be at odds with what kind of person you are. As a result, TCKs will argue that one’s parents’ cultures and one’s host culture are no indication of their cultural identity. Of course, they may be influenced by both, as they will undoubtedly be raised by parents who may identify with their own cultures and will have contact with the locals of the host culture. Nonetheless, because they do not have full ownership of either as a foreigner, TCKs inhabit an in-between space where they are products of both yet do not claim full identification with either. This in-between space is termed the “third culture”, hence the name “third culture kid.”

Plane wingTo illustrate, I don’t have “a hometown” in the conventional sense. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines hometown as “the city or town where one was born or grew up; also : the place of one’s principal residence.” First, since I grew up in many places, by definition, I have more than one hometown. As a result, I feel uncomfortable with the idea that home is just one place. One can have homes all over the world. Second, the idea of a “principal residence” seems to me like a relative term, especially when one is mobile. Up until July, my “principal residence” was my apartment in Des Moines. Obviously, I don’t live there anymore, but does that then stop Des Moines from being my hometown? I feel that the idea of a hometown is another one of those ways to gauge where one “is from.” The conventional idea behind a hometown lead others to believe that, because I was born in Korea, I must speak Korean, or that, since I lived in Grenada, I must have some Afro-Caribbean ancestry and inserted the word “mon” at the end of every sentence. I don’t or didn’t do any of these things, but I did live and go to school in both countries, I ate local cuisine, I was friends with my neighbors, and my family shopped at all the same places that everyone else did. If that doesn’t make a place a home, then I don’t know what does.

The other important issue for TCKs is a sense of unresolved grief. High mobility allows TCKs to experience many different cultures, either through moving or by having friends come and go. While this lends itself to a more cross-cultural lifestyle, it also sets the TCK up for feelings of loss and culture shock that may or may not be addressed fully, due to pressure to adapt to the new environment. Homesickness also pervades as a form of grief, where TCKs often miss their old homes and must deal with the question of whether they will be able to return.

During my teenage years, I remember constantly badgering my dad about when we could go visit Grenada again. To this day, I still have not gone back for a visit. I still think about it a lot. However, I was able to visit Korea when I was 19, right before I started college. It is really funny how a physical place can elicit such a visceral reaction in a person. Little things like a storefront or a street corner brought back so many memories I didn’t even know I had, of afternoon strolls or morning walks to school. I revisited old haunts and was able to go to the hospital where I was born and meet the woman who helped me come into the world. Despite not having lived there in 14 years, in a way, being there made me feel complete and like I had found my way home again. Even just two months ago, when I had a stopover in Seoul, I felt at ease looking out the window and knowing that I was nearer to all the spaces I had once inhabited. I hope to someday go and visit again. I also hope that one day soon, I can feel the same way upon setting foot in Grenada and the U.S. again.

I’m not worried, though. To a TCK, the world is so small that distance is never an issue. When the next trip comes is only a matter of when.

(to be continued)


I’ve Made My Bed, I’ll Lie In It

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The other day, I was sitting with my mom at lunch, complaining as usual about how hard it’s been to find a job in Metro Manila. Usually, she plays the good mom by telling me that I will eventually find something, and that these things take time. However, that day, she decided to keep it real.

“You know why you can’t find anything?” she asked me. “It’s because of your course. You should have taken something practical. How do you expect to take care of yourself?”

I replied by mumbling something about how I’m not good at anything “practical.” It’s true. I don’t want to be a nurse and I don’t want to take business or computer science. In fact, my Economics courses in college were the some of the biggest reasons why my GPA was less than stellar.

“Well, it’s true,” my mom continued. “You need to take something more in demand if you want to live. You have to eat, you know.”

The rest of the meal was spent by me brooding quietly some more about education and skill sets and experience.

I have no problem admitting that my mom and others like her have a point. College does play an enormous part in shaping your skills for a career. It therefore helps your prospects much more if what you learned in college tends to be something more employers are looking for. In the Philippines, this includes nursing, teaching, IT,and business. Moreover, you have a higher chance of getting even the most menial of positions if your degree matches their qualifications or even the nature of the organization. You can’t even be an administrative assistant for an engineering firm without an Accountancy or Engineering degree. Part of it has to do with high competition, while another part has to do with the way things are done here. Unlike in the United States, where there is plenty of room for flexibility, when you declare a course in university here in the Philippines, you make a commitment to be in that field for life. As it goes, since I have a degree in Anthropology, I must be an anthropologist.

It also goes that friends and family here were duly perplexed upon finding out I wanted to major in Anthropology.

“Anthropology?” they asked. “What’s that?”

“It’s the study of people and cultural and social behavior,” was my short answer.

“Like an archaeologist? Do you want to dig up bones?”

“No, I don’t want to dig up bones. I’m more interested in cultural anthropology.”

“What? Where’s the money in that?”

And so on. People have given me much less grief about it and even humor me when I talk about it in casual conversation. On the other hand, I try to make myself sound more legitimate by telling people that my degree is in Anthropology and Global Development Studies. Never mind that GDS was just a concentration and not a full blown major. Never mind that GDS was really just a big mix of Anthro, Political Science, Econ, and some other stuff, leaving me unspecialized in anything. Nonetheless, that strategy seemed to give me a little more street cred, especially with employers.

In Manila, you definitely have more freedom in terms of what degree you pursue, if you are willing to start your career at a call center. All call centers here ask for is English fluency. That’s it. Everything else, from the script, phone etiquette, product overview, and even a contrived American accent and working knowledge of U.S. culture, is given to you during the compulsory training period. These days, you don’t even need a Bachelor’s degree anymore, since the industry is growing too fast to match the number of competent English speakers who want to work at a call center. While the money is quite tempting, I am done with call centers. I worked at a call center in Pasig one summer and did Phonathon all through college. I also did not spend five years building myself up in the U.S. only to come back to the Philippines to work at a call center. I think it’s time to move on from the phones.

So where does this leave me? I am not sure. It is pretty common knowledge that just having a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology isn’t going to bring you very many places. I learned this a while ago. I also realized that the country that readily sends its people to work as maids and janitors in other countries would not really understand what an Anthro degree really is. So, I’ve been aiming for numerous NGOs, teaching/training positions, and even an alumni coordinator position. So far, no success. I know the job search process takes a while, and I haven’t stopped looking, but it has been so easy for me to lose my resolve very quickly. I don’t like being poor, I hate having no routine, and, honestly, I don’t like comparing myself to other people and feeling like I am light years behind my peers. In any case, I will keep looking.

The truth is, I don’t really mind it too much. I know I made my own bed. I know my life is going to suck for a while. But I would still rather be where I am now than be in a position where I’m making much more money doing something that I’m bad at or bores me. The truth is, Anthro really does interest me, and I know that there is a way I can make it work later on in life.

If the going gets really tough, though . . . well, as we liberal arts majors always say, “There’s always grad school.”